National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
What is Epilepsy?
Epilepsy is a brain disorder in which clusters of nerve cells, or neurons,
in the brain sometimes signal abnormally. In epilepsy, the normal pattern of
neuronal activity becomes disturbed, causing strange sensations, emotions, and
behavior or sometimes convulsions, muscle spasms, and loss of consciousness.
Epilepsy is a disorder with many possible causes. Anything that disturbs the
normal pattern of neuron activity - from illness to brain damage to abnormal
brain development - can lead to seizures. Epilepsy may develop because of an
abnormality in brain wiring, an imbalance of nerve signaling chemicals called
neurotransmitters, or some combination of these factors. Having a seizure does
not necessarily mean that a person has epilepsy. Only when a person has had two
or more seizures is he or she considered to have epilepsy. EEGs and brain scans
are common diagnostic test for epilepsy.
Is there any treatment?
Once epilepsy is diagnosed, it is important to begin treatment as soon as
possible. For about 80 percent of those diagnosed with epilepsy, seizures can
be controlled with modern medicines and surgical techniques. Some antiepiletic
drugs can interfere with the effectiveness of oral contraceptives. In 1997, the
FDA approved the vagus nerve stimulator for use in people with seizures that
are not well-controlled by medication.
What is the prognosis?
Most people with epilepsy lead outwardly normal lives. While epilepsy cannot
currently be cured, for some people it does eventually go away. Most seizures
do not cause brain damage. It is not uncommon for people with epilepsy,
especially children, to develop behavioral and emotional problems, sometimes
the consequence of embarrassment and frustration or bullying, teasing, or
avoidance in school and other social setting. For many people with epilepsy,
the risk of seizures restricts their independence (some states refuse drivers
licenses to people with epilepsy) and recreational activities. People with
epilepsy are at special risk for two life-threatening conditions: status
epilepticus and sudden unexplained death. Most women with epilepsy can become
pregnant, but they should discuss their epilepsy and the medications they are
taking with their doctors. Women with epilepsy have a 90 percent or better
chance of having a normal, healthy baby.
What research is being done?
Scientists are studying potential antiepileptic drugs with goal of enhancing
treatment for epilepsy. Scientists continue to study how neurotransmitters
interact with brain cells to control nerve firing and how non-neuronal cells in
the brain contribute to seizures. One of the most-studied neurotransmitters is
GABA, or gamma-aminobutryic acid. Researchers are working to identify genes
that may influence epilepsy. This information may allow doctors to prevent
epilepsy or to predict which treatments will be most beneficial. Doctors are
now experimenting with several new types of therapies for epilepsy, including
transplanting fetal pig neurons into the brains of patients to learn whether
cell transplants can help control seizures, transplanting stem cells, and using
a device that could predict seizures up to 3 minutes before they begin.
Researchers are continually improving MRI and other brain scans. Studies have
show that in some case, children may experience fewer seizures if they maintain
a strict diet - called the ketogenic diet - rich in fats and low in